The Power Broker I

The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”

These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.

Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.

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Before Reading “The Power Broker”

I’m 1/6 of the way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The audiobook doesn’t divide in exactly the same way as the book does, but that sixth takes me through Moses’ first 35 years. Most of that time, he personally has no power at all.

Brief overview: Robert Moses would become one of the most influential public officials in 20th century New York. As a city planner, he would build and run unaccountable public authorities to achieve his vision of New York, which favored cars over public transit and dotted and crossed the metropolitan area with public parks and highways (often without regard for who or what was already there). He was the model authoritarian urban planner.

And it’s how he did it that was so remarkable. Robert Moses never held elected office. Mayors came and went, Governors came and went, but Robert Moses was a constant force in shaping New York for decades. He’s a man who turned roadbuilding into a method to reward or punish his political enemies, who invented laws and boards and then used them to sculpt the city as he saw fit.

At the time this book was published, New York was in a nadir. The subtitle, The Fall of New York, in hindsight, can now be seen as a comical overreach. As one reviewer put it, Moses’ surgical modifications to the city were not necessarily in the public interest, but they weren’t fatal. Cities don’t die easily.

The book is still highly lauded as a story about New York City, about “cities in general” (especially since Moses’ model influenced other cities), as a biography of a fascinating person, and as a study in power.

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I’m starting Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I will probably share some notes or thoughts, but I’m actually trying it as an audiobook (there’s no ebook! What was I supposed to do?) so my usual e-annotation method won’t quite work. I’ll work out how I’ll write to it.

I did not think that writing about my own finances would be as uncomfortable to me as it was. Anyway.

Earlier this year, on one of the many weeks when I broke my promise to write a blog post here, I became debt free. It was a tiny milestone on my personal (and quite boring, I admit) hike towards Financial Independence. I was never in any financial danger, but I was a student not too long ago, and though I had grants and scholarships and even graduated early I still managed to get stuck with a mound of student debt.

At first I did little about it. For most of my employed life I was more focused on investment than in debt reduction. I figured that the same dollar could give a higher ROI in stocks than it would reducing my debt. I had spreadsheets! I paid the minimum amount on my student debt each month.

Last year, though, my approach to this debt changed. I reasoned that hitting zero on my student debt was an achievable and measurable goal in startlingly little time (with some discipline), and more importantly I felt that goal would be a great launchpad to build habits I wanted to build anyway. The student loan amounts individually were small enough that I could tackle each one individually and get a dopamine rush out of zeroing them out in a reasonable amount of time. As a result of my approach, I tackled smaller debt loads first to try to build a habit and keep the game going, instead of the strict Jedi-rationalist approach of attacking larger higher-interest debts and risking those long struggles pushing me off the wagon.

Once I got into it, I found ways to marshal together a bit more money to accelerate the rate that I hit my targets. Due to the aggression that the game instilled in me, I achieved the goal significantly earlier than I projected. My daily expenses were leaned out noticeably but at no major sacrifice; I still paid for trips, including a vacation in Iceland, and I still donated at the same rate that I always have.

Now that the game’s been won, I can muster those forces towards investments with equal intensity.

For what it’s worth, I find this “Order of Operations” to be a great heuristic for how to build:


There are whole communities of people, there are gurus and subreddits and podcasts on Financial Independence- I’d recommend for anyone to take a look. I think it’s an especially worthy goal because I don’t know what 2019Me wants to be when he grows up, or what 2026Me will value, but I do know that by achieving (or even just approaching) this goal of Financial Independence I improve his optionality significantly. And it can feel good to have a measurable goal, to project out futures and then to act to achieve them.

Other caveats: I have no children and few real financial obligations so far. My SO has been supportive and is even looking into adapting with me. I knew these things before, but discussing my ambitions and sharing my victories with friends has made me appreciate the social context that buoys me that much more.